The Legacy of Prohibition on Wine 80 Years Later

There have been many books and films made about Prohibition, the era of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned the production of alcoholic drinks for commercial sale and transportation from 1920 until 1933.  A new film focuses on how the wine industry rebuilt itself after Repeal and the effects and lasting legacy of Prohibition.  Can’t get wine shipped to your house?  Blame it on Prohibition.  Can’t buy wine on Sunday?  Another legacy of Prohibition.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 3.55.37 PM

Today, December 5, 2013 is the 80th anniversary of Prohibition’s Repeal.  “There is no question that the legacy of Prohibition continues,” says Carla De Luca Worfolk, director of the documentary America’s Wine:  The Legacy of Prohibition.  She wanted to look specifically at the wine industry.  “We thought what would be most interesting and relevant to people is to understand the implications of that period and why that history is still important and relevant today.”

Carla grew up in the wine industry; her father John De Luca was president and CEO of the Wine Institute, an industry advocacy group based in San Francisco, from 1975 to 2003.  Carla was also an Emmy award-winning producer at CNN in Atlanta (where we worked together), but felt the pull of home and came back to the Bay Area.  In 2003 her father planned a luncheon to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Repeal.  He had invited some of the most iconic figures in the wine industry and asked Carla if she could film the event.

“I thought it would be terrific if we could put something together for the vintners, something that could chronicle the history,” she says.  “Having grown up in the wine industry I knew so many things were referenced back to Prohibition.  It is a complex social and historical time in our country’s history.”  Timing was also of the essence.  Many of the vintners were in their 80s and 90s.  “Some of them had never been on camera.”

There was a second event that year, a silver jubilee celebration of Brother Timothy’s 75 years as a Christian Brother (where he was head winemaker).  Robert Mondavi and Ernest Gallo, who were not at the Repeal Luncheon, happened to attend, and Carla was able to get footage of these men together there.  It was to be Gallo’s last public appearance.

Once she had all of these interviews on film, Carla began to work on a documentary.  “I needed to become a quick study and research the period,” she says.  Research led Carla to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and the Regional Oral History Office.  She connected with food and wine historian Dr. Victor Geraci, who guided her to the materials and interviews she needed.

“The more I discussed the project with Vic of recording these interviews and my desire to do a documentary we thought it would be a terrific project for the Bancroft Library Regional Oral History Office.”  Carla presented a proposal to the Bancroft Library, which then commissioned her to create a documentary film “on behalf of the library.”  While the Bancroft Library has supplied materials to other filmmakers, they had never made their own film.  America’s Wine would be the first.

In addition to the many winemaker interviews, Carla also interviewed historians, journalists and politicians not only of the Prohibition era but also from the current era.  There are 40 interviews for the documentary.  “No other industry has ever had to deal with and overcome not just one, but two Constitutional amendments that significantly changed the manufacture and distribution of its product,” says Carla.  “That’s another reason the story is so compelling, and why we continue to see the consequences of those events impact American society today.”

Carla says the most surprising thing she learned during her research was about “the incredible perseverance and optimism that so many of these winemakers and wine families had through the period.”  Many were immigrant families where wine “was part of their culture, their history, their family traditions.”  They thought beer and spirits would be banned, but not wine.  “It was a complete shock to them,” she says, when the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919 and enacted on January 17, 1920.

One other surprise was learning that in the period from 1920 to 1925 vineyard acreage actually increased in California.  Carla says that they learned from historian Thomas Pinney that “the vineyards supported the great boom in home winemaking, which was legal, and grapes were shipped back East in large quantities.”  Eventually there was an oversupply of grapes, and changing economic conditions, such as the Great Depression, slowed demand.

America’s Wine shows the many ways that vintners adapted and changed their operations.  Not all believed Prohibition would last and never lost sight of regaining their wine businesses.  As mentioned, ironically it was legal to make wine at home, and many wineries survived Prohibition selling grapes to home winemakers.  Others were able to make wine for sacramental uses.  Some made grape products, such as grape juice and jams and jellies, and even grape bricks.  Carla tracked down one wine brick at a southern California museum and it makes an appearance in the film.  “It looks like this sort of congealed block with this paper wrapping,” she says.  On the label, “there would be these warning labels don’t add water and sugar it might ferment and become wine.”

After Repeal, when the 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, times were still very difficult for the wine industry, but vintners remained optimistic and determined to rebuild despite many obstacles.  “They had to address issues of wine production and quality where their facilities had been decimated so they had to rebuild,” says Carla.   “They had to figure out the best ways they could produce quality wines going forward because the wines that had been stored [during Prohibition] were not drinkable.”  Many vintners turned to professors in enology and viticulture at UC Davis.  “They also looked to people like Brother Timothy who was a chemist and really understood winemaking properties,” she says.

Improving winemaking methods and quality was one of several key factors that led to the state of the American wine industry today, says Carla.  The way forward was led by the “Phoenix Generation” that included Gene Cuneo, Bob Rossi, Lou Foppiano, Sr., Eric Wente, Robert and Peter Mondavi, Brother Timothy and  Ernest and Julio Gallo.  Vintners realized they needed leadership and needed to band together, and in 1934 The Wine Institute was born, an organization “that would help to look at policy issues and support winemaker interests as the wine industry got back on its feet.”

Financing was a huge issue..  A.P. Giannini, the founder of the Bank of Italy and then the Bank of America, provided the loans and monies needed, especially to these small farmers.  “He was willing to make agreements with them for them to pay him back, and he valued a handshake more than a contract,” says Carla.

As America’s Wine shows, the wine industry not only recovered, but prospered.  More wineries began opening their doors in the 1960s and 1970s.  In 1976, the famous “Paris Tasting,” where two Napa Valley wines beat the best of the French wines in a blind tasting, showed the world that America could make serious wine.  Now wine is made in all 50 states and is sold globally.

But there are still challenges for winemakers 80 years after Prohibition.  When Repeal was enacted, states were granted the power to set up their own laws regarding alcohol policy, sales and shipping.  That legacy is a complex set of laws, different not just in 50 states, but even county to county within some states.  It’s still not possible to ship alcohol to certain states from out of state.  There are still dry counties, and so called “blue laws” that prevent the sale of alcohol in grocery stores or on Sundays.  In many states the states themselves control the distribution and sale of alcohol and you can only buy wine, beer and spirits in state-owned package stores.  Much of the availability of wine brands are controlled by third party distributors who hold tremendous political power and who would rather not see direct to consumer sales.

Many smaller wineries have a tough time getting their wine into the hands of customers who want to buy their wines. It’s also very expensive for wineries to comply with the vast differences in state laws and liquor licenses.  “There is no one way or easy way to handle the issue of alcohol in America,” to this day, says Carla.  “Alcohol remains a complex cultural, social, economic and political issue.”

In the film there are “upwards of 3000 still images from a variety of sources as well as 200 hours of footage, some of which we shot ourselves,” says Carla.  Many photos and film footage have not been seen in decades, and the vintage film clips add greatly to the story telling.  They were sourced from the National Archives and private collections.  Carla says the wineries themselves were very generous in giving her materials and time, sitting for interviews.  “11 of the people that we talked to for the film have since passed away,” she says.  One of them is Robert Mondavi, who died in May 2008. “When I sat down with Robert Mondavi he said ‘this is one for the history books,’ and it was very clear he knew this would be the last time he would have the opportunity to sit down and share his reflections.”

Carla De Luca Worfolk with Brother Timothy, June 2003
Carla De Luca Worfolk with Brother Timothy, June 2003

Carla says Brother Timothy was also aware that this was his last appearance on camera. He passed away in December 2004.  “He spent the better part of a day with us,” she says.  “In addition to all that we talked about related to the film and the wine industry he wanted to talk about his reflections of being a Christian Brother and about his background.”  At a running time of 55 minutes America’s Wine shows portions of these interviews, but thanks to the partnership with the Bancroft Library, all interviews in the film will be available for listening to in their entirety by the public (once they are cataloged) through the Regional Oral History Office, as part of the California Wine Industry Collection.  This is a lasting legacy of the film itself and a great contribution to the history of American wine.

In late October, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History held a special dinner and private screening in Washington D.C. at the museum, hosted with the Bancroft Library.  Many of the wine families, such as Gallo and Martini, featured in the film attended.

As for the involvement with the Smithsonian, Carla says, “unbeknownst to us The Smithsonian had embarked on their own food exhibits in parallel [with her shooting the documentary].  They had been researching the wine industry and looking at ways of incorporating the wine industry’s history and story into their exhibit.”  Paula Johnson, curator of the exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, heard about the film.  Carla says, “it became clear that our film would be very complimentary to the way they were putting together their historical timeline and their exhibit so we started discussing the possibility of having some type of screening or event where the film could be featured in conjunction with their exhibit”

One of the major sections of the FOOD exhibit features “Wine for the Table,” about winemaking in America post-Prohibition.  America’s Wine is “so closely aligned with the theme of rebuilding after Repeal.”  says Paula.  “Like the film, the exhibition reveals how scientists and researchers, a new generation of practitioners and entrepreneurs came together to rebuild the industry through new technologies and innovations, hard work and creative marketing strategies.”

A copy of America’s Wine will be in the American Food and Wine History collection, available to researchers as are the museum’s other reference materials.

For Carla, the making of America’s Wine:  The Legacy of Prohibition has been a long endeavor, but a labor of love since she embarked on the journey in 2003.  Along the way she received guidance from Ken Burns (who produced the three-part series, Prohibition for PBS).  “Ken has been wonderfully supportive and encouraging from day one and throughout our project.” she says.  “Before the first edit, I was able to share with him what I envisioned and hoped to accomplish with the film, and he gave me great affirming feedback.”

America’s Wine brings the story of wine in the United States full circle. “Prohibition and its Repeal still define how alcohol is bought, sold and distributed throughout our country, governing which wines, where and how they can be purchased by everyday consumers,” says Carla.  “The legacy of Prohibition continues to be relevant today when we examine cultural, social, and public policy issues about alcohol in America.”

Please check the Bancroft Library’s website on America’s Wine for updates on future screenings of the documentary and DVD release.



  2. Pingback: SFMOMA WINE EXHIBIT 2014

  3. Pingback: WINE FAIR OXFORD 2014

  4. Pingback: 2014 WINE EXHIBITIONS Updates

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.